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Alberta-developed app Virtuo creates a concierge for your moving day

Moving usually means weeks, if not months, of personal upheaval and long task lists. But a Calgary startup says it has the solution: a free, virtual moving concierge.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The business of removals and relocations hasn't seen much innovation in its long history. Trucks, boxes and endless metres of packing tape are still the staple tools of the trade. It's a business based on logistics and grunt work that generally leaves the person moving with weeks, if not months, of personal upheaval and long task lists. Which is where two Calgary-based entrepreneurs have moved on a business opportunity.

Casey Kachur, 35, and Nate Edwards, 33, have worked in the relocations industry for more than 10 years, moving employees from some of Alberta's biggest companies across continents. It's where they met, working for Mr. Kachur's family business, Highland Removals, which is one of Canada's biggest relocation and removals companies.

Now, the pair have launched Virtuo, a service that pairs movers with a personal moving assistant to manage the entire moving process from appointing agents to mortgage advisers and arranging yard work to setting up mail forwarding. There's also an app that centralizes communication and planning. What's more, it's entirely free, provided you are buying or selling property in Calgary. The service will be available in Edmonton by the end of 2016, Mr. Kachur and Mr. Edwards say.

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"The process of moving home is very different depending on whether you have an employer supporting you with a relocation assistant or not," Mr. Kachur explains. "We know that from years spent moving employees on behalf of businesses. Which is where the idea for Virtuo came from; we figured if we could find a way to offer everybody that executive moving experience, we'd be onto something."

Working out a way to monetize the idea led the pair to their current business model.

"We knew people wouldn't pay for it because, for the average person, moving home is already really expensive. The real estate referral model means as far as the client is concerned, we're just giving them added value on what they would already be paying anyway, plus they get our corporate rates with service providers," Mr. Edwards says.

Agents are shortlisted for movers using an algorithm, which claims to make recommended pairings based on a variety of factors including neighbourhood, property type and personality.

In exchange for a client referral, Virtuo takes up to 32 per cent of the real estate agent's commission; a figure that they say hasn't put agents off working with them. They're targeting people moving locally to maximize their commission potential on both buying and selling fronts.

"In the relocation world, companies are taking upwards of 40 per cent from agents for referrals, so this is competitive," Mr. Kachur says. "There's a lot less business out there for agents right now, so referrals are pretty appealing."

Prior to launch, the pair spent 18 months building the back end of the business and developing an app with Calgary-based developers, Critical Mass.

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The app allows movers to keep all their listing and moving documents and contacts in one place, chat with their personal moving assistant and agent, track their viewing appointments, store feedback on homes viewed and manage their moving budget.

Virtuo was launched in June, 2016, and in the first 90 days of business, Mr. Edwards says they've signed up more than 20 new clients and have enquiries coming in daily. They recently hired two full-time staff.

"We have a chunky marketing budget," he says, "and we're pushing the product hard. This might not seem like a great time to launch a new business in Alberta, but this is a free service. It might just be the best time to launch it."

General contractor Neil Bailey contacted Virtuo after seeing an ad on social media. He's using their services to help him undertake improvements and list a rental property he's decided to sell.

"When I hooked up with Virtuo, they shortlisted some agents for me, the agents then made some recommendations on how to present the property to market, which included cutting back some trees. Virtuo sourced the quotes for an arborist and had it booked in a day. Now, they're helping me find a staging company and we're aiming to get the house listed mid-September."

So far, Mr. Bailey has been impressed with the service.

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"It's a quarterback service and it's great. I sold another rental property earlier this year without them and it was much more time consuming for me."

He was also surprised that there's no cost to movers.

"It's remarkable that it's free. I don't know that I would pay for the service to sell a rental property, but if I was selling and buying my primary residence, yes I think I would be happy to pay for it."

The Virtuo team's track record in moving has also secured it return business. Daniella Balzan Ramos, a team leader for oil and gas company Aecom, was relocated to Calgary from Venezuela 10 years ago. Mr. Edwards managed that move and Ms. Balzan Ramos has become one of Virtuo's first clients. She recently moved into her new house in Prairie Park.

"I've been renting in Calgary for a while now and decided it was time to buy somewhere. Virtuo managed the entire process for me. I work really long hours in a very stressful job, having someone to help me with the moving process and do the leg work for me was the best solution," Ms. Balzan Ramos said.

For Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kachur, client success stories are just another step in proving their business model in preparation for expansion.

"Our ambition is to be active in 15 cities in North America within the next five years," Mr. Edwards says. "We have to test it in Calgary before we do that. We're launching in Edmonton before the year's out and then we'll be looking at the rest of Canada and the West Coast U.S."

For Mr. Kachur, innovation is just as important as expansion.

"We want to put our stamp on this industry," he says, "to shake it up."

His family have been in the business of removals since 1938, when his grandfather founded Jim's Express, which would later become Highland Removals, in Edmonton. It was a simple business model; one man and a truck moving people and belongings from A to B in the Province of Alberta.

Mr. Kachur's father, though retired now, is still involved in the family business and fully supports his son stepping aside to follow his own ambition.

"My dad is 70 now and he loves what we're creating with Virtuo; he loves technology. He actually created an online inventory system, which was adopted by removals companies all over Canada. So I guess I must get it from him."

Clarification: The back-end application for Virtuo was developed by Christophe Ngo and Code Engine Studio Inc. Mr. Ngo worked at Critical Mass in Calgary prior to starting Code Engine.

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